In the US, consumers waste a lot of food: between 30% and 40% of all the food produced in the US is wasted, which adds up to a huge contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, roughly the equivalent of 32 million cars on the road.
But there is a better way: preserving excess vegetables and fruits, either by canning or freezing them.
Marisa McClellan, a food writer and author of the book “Food in Jars” has lots of preservation tips and tricks for saving the bounty of the garden and preventing fresh produce from ending up in landfills.
“Some of the very best places to go are your local farmers markets or farm stands,” McClellan says. “I love to go to the farmers market that happens in my neighborhood once a week, and I've been going there for almost 20 years now. So, I have made lots of friends with my farmers and they like to hook me up with seconds and good deals of produce. So it works out well.”
McClellan lives on the 20th floor of a high rise in downtown Philadelphia. But sometimes, she says, being a canner is easier without your own garden, because it frees up time for food preservation and for working with local farmers and growers.
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For those who are able, McClellan recommends the tried-and-true technique of root-cellaring certain fruits and vegetables, like potatoes, carrots, apples and winter squashes, which all do well in cool, slightly moist environments. For others, such as apartment-dwellers like her, modern storage methods, like a big home freezer, work well, too.
“I think that things like peaches, sliced up, maybe mixed in with a little bit of sugar to help prevent freezer burn is a good way to go,” McClellan says. “You can also do, individually, quick frozen peaches like you get at the grocery store, where you cut them into quarters and lay them out on a cookie sheet and freeze them like that and then funnel them into a plastic bag.”
McClellan also loves to freeze pesto because there's no other good way to preserve it, but it's such a delicious way to use many of the herbs that remain in the garden at the end of the season.
McClellan also will often freeze kale, when it’s in season. The best practice for greens is to blanch them first, but McClellan says they “keep for several months if you just wash them, pull them off the stems and then cram them into Ziploc bags and freeze [them]. Then what I do is I just pull out a handful of leaves when I want to make a pot of soup or something like that, chop them up or even just crumble them over the pot, because it kind of crumbles frozen, and then it's so easy and it's almost a work-free way of putting up that kale or those greens.”
Many people enjoy fall apples and often find they have more than they need. For this, McClellan says, “there’s nothing better than just plain old homemade applesauce.”
She also loves to make apple butter, which she does in a slow cooker.
“I'll just heap in apples that have been cored and peeled, add a little water, cook them down until they're soft, zap it with an immersion blender right in the slow cooker and then continue to cook it down until all the waters cooked out,” McClellan says. “And then you can add some spices, lemon juice, a little sugar, maybe some maple syrup instead, and either can it or put it in the refrigerator and just eat it. It's delicious.”
Tomatoes are McClellan’s favorite thing to preserve this time of year. She calls them “the gift that just keeps giving.”
“I love to sauce them — just pulp them, cook them down into sauce, and can that with a little bit of lemon juice or citric acid. You can never go wrong,” she says. “I also make pizza sauce this time of year, which is a really great one to have in the pantry.”
McClellan also loves to make tomato jam, which is actually the most popular recipe she has ever published on her website.
“People have come back to me for years saying that that became their beloved family recipe, too,” she says. “And it's really just tomatoes and sugar and lime juice and a bunch of spices and you cook it down and it turns into something that is like ketchup, but is better than any ketchup you've ever had and it can go places that ketchup can't. So that's a really good one for your tomatoes.”
You can also roast tomatoes, “low and slow,” McClellan adds. Cut them in half and put them in a really low oven for 10 to 14 hours. The tomatoes become “almost sun-roasted,” and then you can either freeze them or puree them into sauces and then proceed to canning them.
McClellan cautions against keeping tomatoes in a jar with olive oil and garlic because this technique can cultivate botulism.
“Botulism is the thing we're scared of when it comes to canning,” she says. “Tomatoes are not actually as acidic as we think they are and so if you need to have a high acid preserve, you need to often add acid to tomatoes to make them safe. And then if you add garlic, which is a low acid food, to a tomato, and then you create an anaerobic environment with that olive oil, it can create something that's potentially deadly. So it's better if you're going to add garlic that you keep lots of oil out of it and then either freeze it or refrigerate it as opposed to canning it because you just want to be safe.”
McClellan loves to turn her green tomatoes into chutney because it’s delicious and so easy to make.
“There's no technique, there's no set point you're looking for,” she explains. “You chop up the tomatoes, you put them in a pot with sugar, vinegar, onion, maybe some raisins or other dried fruit and spices and you just boil it down. You just keep cooking it until it's thick. That’s it. And you can do it slower and it'll take like two or three hours; you could do it a little bit faster if you have to monitor it and it'll take maybe 90 minutes and then once it's thick, once it's not looking at all watery, it's done. … It’s great, particularly if you're planning ahead for the holidays, because it's great on a cheese board, it's great with the roasted turkey and roasted meats that we see a lot of times as we head into the holidays. It's also even great with latkes, so it's a really good one for this time of year.”
Pickling is also an option for preserving vegetables — and not just cucumbers. McClellan pickles zucchinis, carrots, Brussels sprouts, even cauliflower — although she recommends pickling cauliflower with a lot of lemon juice to prevent it from turning gray in the jar.
Of course, fall is the season of Halloween and many people will have leftover pumpkins. If you carve your pumpkin and leave it out for a few days, it might not be great to cook down, McClellan says. But if it's still in good shape or you are using it just decor and it hasn’t been carved up, she recommends cutting it into pieces and roasting it at 300 or 350 degrees.
“Roast it just till it's tender, then you scrape the flesh out of the skin,” she advises. "I also like to put those seeds aside and you can grab the seeds, even if you've roasted the pumpkin, and scoop them out. Separate the seeds from the stringy mess and then what I like to do with the seeds is boil them in some salted water, then drain them and then roast them. … The salt infuses the seeds and just makes them more flavorful.”
Once you scrape the pumpkin flesh out of the skin, McClellan suggests pureeing it and then draining it because big Halloween pumpkins can be very watery.
“[Y]ou want to concentrate the flavor of the flesh,” she explains. “You've already kind of concentrated the sweetness by roasting it, and then you scrape it out and puree it in a blender or use an immersion blender…and then put it in a fine sieve and let the water drain out. If you don't have a fine sieve, you can line a colander with cheesecloth or even just a clean, thin kitchen towel and let the water drain out. And then what you have left is a very concentrated, hopefully fairly thick, pumpkin puree that you can pack into containers and freeze and then use in, like, pumpkin bread.”
“You can also cook it down into pumpkin butter, which is delicious,” McClellan adds. “I like to combine it with maple sugar and spices and a little bit of lemon juice and cook it down and cook it down. And then that's something that I keep in the fridge or I freeze. Pumpkin butter is too low in acid to be canned safely, but it's still delicious, just to have on hand.”